AMBEPUSSA, Sri Lanka
Vinojan’s boyhood ended when Sri Lanka’s civil war reignited. Fifteen at the time, he says he joined the separatist Tamil Tigers to save his older brother from forcible conscription, and became a reluctant fighter as the rebels fought their last, desperate battles for survival.
Now, having won the war, Sri Lanka is trying to make patriotic citizens out of child soldiers like Vinojan and others who just months ago were fighting against the nation.
Vinojan, who nurses a dark scar on his wrist from a shrapnel wound, is just trying to reclaim what is left of a childhood cut short.
“We wanted to be students. All that was shattered,” he said.
About 570 children, some as young as 13, are among an estimated 10,000 captured rebels who have been sent to government rehabilitation camps around the island since the 25-year war for a separate Tamil state ended in May. Tamils are an ethnic minority in the country of 21 million people off the coast of India.
“These are children who were exposed to danger, taken away from their families and deprived of their childhood,” said Maj. Gen. Daya Ratnayake, the military official in charge of the camps. “Our hope is to get them back to normal as much as possible.”
The former child soldiers say they want simply to be reunited with their families. But some have lost relatives or are still searching for them.
Meanwhile, the government is working to ensure they don’t pick up arms again. But it has done little to fulfill its pledge to tackle the Tamils’ long-standing grievances by sharing some power with them.
The ex-fighters’ treatment stands in stark contrast to the plight of nearly 300,000 displaced Tamil civilians who are held in overcrowded government camps in the north. U.N. officials have pressed for their release and aid workers fear coming rains could lead to outbreaks of disease.
In Ambepussa, Vinojan, about 80 other children and 32 adults - start their day by hoisting the Sri Lankan flag and singing the national anthem (“Mother Lanka we salute thee! … Ill-will, hatred, strife all ended …”).
They study English and Sinhalese, the language of the country’s majority ethnic group, and take classes in plumbing, metalwork, sewing and cooking. They watch TV, listen to music and play cricket, the country’s favorite sport.
Maj. Herman Fernando, who runs the camp, said he is trying to get the children into nearby schools.
Most in Ambepussa are expected to go free after a year of rehabilitation and psychiatric evaluation.
UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund, said the children in Ambepussa appeared well treated.
Spokeswoman Sarah Crowe looked forward to them rejoining their families and communities, saying: “These children have been deprived of their childhood and will need all possible care and protection to start a new life.”
When the violence was worsening in February, UNICEF accused the rebels of stepping up their forcible recruitment of children, saying it had recorded 6,000 such cases since 2003.
Although Vinojan spent his whole life living under rebel control in the remote northern village of Tharmapuram, he managed to have a somewhat normal childhood.
Then, as fighting flared in 2007, the rebels began seeking fresh recruits. A letter arrived summoning Vinojan’s older brother, who had just turned 18, to join the fight.
The family hid in the jungle rather than comply. But Vinojan’s father couldn’t work and his three siblings couldn’t go to school, so, at 15, he volunteered to join the rebels in his brother’s place, he said.
At first, he ferried meals to fighters. Early this year, the family decided to dash across the front lines. The rebels, who were holding tens of thousands of civilians as human shields, opened fire. Vinojan hit the ground and was captured.
“My parents were unaware that I got caught. If they knew, they wouldn’t have gone. So I did not shout, I just let them go,” he said.
The rebels tied him to a tree and whipped him with a palm branch, he said. Then they gave him 10 days of training and a rifle and sent him and other child soldiers to the front.
“We were all scared and only wanted to retreat,” he said, adding that he fired shots randomly but never had a chance to take aim at anyone.
After five days, he deserted and hid with a sympathetic family. He was caught again and sent back to the front, where food was dwindling and fighters went a month without a bath or change of clothes, he said.
The rebels made it clear how further escape attempts would be punished.
“One of my comrades was blindfolded, made to kneel and shot in front of us,” Vinojan said.
But the army kept advancing, so the boy tried to escape again, this time hiding in an abandoned house for five days with no food or water before meeting up with an aunt and uncle. Then an artillery shell hit their shelter, killing the uncle, aunt and their 1-year-old baby. Vinojan was in the jungle at the time.
“I cried and then gathered up the remains, put them in a nearby bunker and covered it with soil,” Vinojan said.
Finally, on April 20, the army broke through and Vinojan joined tens of thousands of others escaping across a lagoon to government territory.
In Ambepussa, “I wasn’t sure if my parents were alive, and they didn’t know where I was,” he said. Then UNICEF brought them to the camp for a visit.
“When we met, we cried,” he said, tears in his eyes.
Vinojan once hoped to become a government worker when he grew up.
“But under the circumstances, I don’t think too far ahead,” he said. “It’s enough to be an ordinary man.”